Aston Villa finished the 2020/21 Premier League season in 11th place, a far cry from their 2019/20 campaign, where they only avoided relegation on the last day of the season. Villa improved by a big margin during last season, picking up 20 more points, scoring 14 more goals and conceding 21 goals fewer, and were briefly in the running for a European spot for next season before falling away with a poor run of results towards the end of the season. That run of form coincided with the injury-enforced absence of Jack Grealish, Villa’s captain and talisman, and the Clarets’ attacking threat was severely diminished when the 25-year-old was not on the pitch. While Grealish is now at EURO 2020 with England, rumours around a potential transfer away continue to swirl, with the latest news being that Manchester City are reportedly interested in bringing Grealish to the Etihad Stadium for a fee of £100 million. There is no guarantee that Grealish will leave Villa Park – it is still far more likely that he will be lining up for Villa next season, but the club hierarchy have moved to ensure that should the England playmaker depart, they have sufficient cover in place, by signing Emiliano Buendía from Norwich City.
Villa have reportedly paid £33 million before add-ons to Norwich, making Buendía Villa’s record signing as well as Norwich’s record sale. The 24-year-old Argentinian was one of the pillars of Daniel Farke’s side last season as they won the Championship and regained promotion to the Premier League at the first time of asking, scoring 15 goals and making 12 assists. He was a part of the Norwich side that was relegated in the 2019/20 season, and while he did not have a particularly memorable season, with just 2 goals and 7 assists, there were signs that he could prosper with some more experience and improvement. It looks as though Villa have bought him to play alongside Grealish, rather than as a replacement, which is a big statement of intent from the West Midlands side, and it will be fascinating to see if their creativity and attacking threat increases as a result in the upcoming campaign. We will look at what Buendía brings to this Villa side, and how he will potentially help open up even more space for Grealish to thrive next season.
Statistical and playing profile
It is worth looking at Buendía’s playing style and profile to understand what the 24-year-old is good at and what his tendencies are on the pitch, as this will help us see how he can fit into the Villa side next season. First, we will look at Buendía’s career heat map, as this will tell us where he usually plays on the pitch.
This heat map shows how the Argentinian has largely operated on the right flank, although he does tend to drift infield at times and has also been used as a central playmaker on occasion. This is also why we believe he has been brought in to complement Grealish, as most of Villa’s attacking play came down their left flank last season, and Buendía’s presence on the right will provide some more balance as well as an increased threat.
We will now look at a few charts to try and show Buendía’s tendencies and capabilities in comparison to his Championship peers, based on data from last season. Of course, the Premier League is bound to be a tougher assignment, but this is an exercise in finding what Buendía is good at, which will tell us what to expect from him at Villa. We have only considered players who played at least 1000 minutes in the Championship, and we are looking at wingers on either flank to provide the best comparison.
Our first chart looks at these players’ non-penalty goals and xG per 90 minutes. It is important to filter out penalties when looking at xG values – a penalty has an xG value of 0.76 (according to Wyscout), making it one of the most valuable scoring opportunities according to the model. However, this can serve to inflate the xG total for players who may not otherwise be getting into goalscoring positions, but are taking penalties for their sides (looking at you, Jorginho), and unfairly penalizes those players who do not take penalties. Thus, bringing everyone on a so-called equal footing by using non-penalty goals and xG per 90 minutes is a good way to understand if they have been getting into decent positions, and whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ goalscorers.
It is quite clear from this chart that Buendía was among the most threatening wingers in the Championship last season. He is well in the top 25% for both npxG and non-penalty goals per 90, which shows how he was a consistent goal threat for Norwich City last season, and we can expect this trend to continue in the Premier League, although it is debatable as to whether he will be able to rack up the same numbers.
The next chart looks at passes to the penalty area and touches in the box per 90, as an indicator of how frequently players were able to influence proceedings in the opposition penalty area, either by passing the ball to teammates in the box, or by touching the ball there themselves. Again, Buendía is in top quartile for both metrics, which is another indication of his creative output and the danger he poses in these areas.
This chart, which looks at progressive runs and dribbles per 90, makes it clear that Buendía is not a high volume dribbler or carrier of the ball. He is in the bottom 50% for dribbles per 90, and only just around the third quartile for progressive runs per 90. The Argentinian is far more likely to get involved in play through his passing and off-ball movement rather than dribbling past opponents, which is in contrast to Grealish’s playing style on the opposite flank. Thus, by having two wingers with different approaches on either flank, Villa’s attack should benefit, as this will provide different ways to break down opponents, while these two players’ skill-sets can also work well together as a result.
We have to look at fouls suffered per 90 here, as Grealish was the most-fouled player in the Premier League in the 2019/20 season, and having another player with a similar ability to draw fouls would make Villa even more of a threat, especially if they can maximize their threat from the resulting set-pieces. Buendía’s Norwich teammate Todd Cantwell was the most-fouled player in the Championship on a per 90 basis last season, and he does bear a lot of similarities with Grealish in terms of his style of play. Buendía was the seventh-most fouled player in the league, with 1.99 fouls won per 90. Grealish, in comparison, won 4.12 fouls per 90 in the Premier League last season, and while Buendía is not as prolific at winning free-kicks, he will still provide quite a dangerous threat for opponents.
Our final chart looks at passes to the final third and progressive passes per 90, while the size of each plot indicates the player’s xA per 90 for the season. Buendía does well on all three metrics – he is in the top quartile for the two passing metrics, while his xA per 90 numbers were only bettered by Albert Adomah of Queens Park Rangers, who is curiously enough a former Aston Villa player. Buendía is extremely good at picking up possession between the lines and moving the ball forward, as these numbers show, and Villa should get an injection of creativity through his arrival next season.
These comparisons indicate that Buendía is more of a playmaker than a traditional, old-school winger – indeed, he had the lowest crosses/90 numbers for this selection of players, which shows how he is not the player to go to the byline and swing a cross into the box. However, he is more suited to playing in a team that dominates possession, and therefore could struggle a little at Villa, who are more of a counter-attacking side. It will be interesting to see if his arrival suggests a shift to a more expansive style of play by Dean Smith, with Villa said to be targeting Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe, another talented playmaker, or whether the 24-year-old will have to adapt to fit into Villa’s system.
We will now look at how Buendía could potentially figure in Villa’s setup, including in-game examples from last season which showcase his quality.
Creativity and awareness
This is undoubtedly Buendía’s strongest suit, as we saw from the charts earlier as well. He is extremely capable and confident on the ball, with excellent positional awareness and intelligence that allows him to drift into dangerous positions to receive possession before setting up teammates. Buendía rarely hugs the touchline, instead coming infield to occupy the half-spaces, and this allows him to stay in close proximity to the striker, which facilitates quick one-twos and passing combinations to draw out opposition defences and create space.
Notice how he picks up possession here and drives infield from the left before playing a sharp pass into Kieran Dowell’s path and continuing his run into the box.
Dowell plays a first-time flick into the box for Buendía to run onto…
…and the Argentinian is then able to square the ball back to Dowell…
…who has an easy finish into the net.
This is just one example of Buendía’s ability in tight spaces – the Argentinian is quite comfortable at receiving the ball under pressure and he is able to then find teammates with accurate passes, or even dribble out of such situations himself if need be.
Two of his biggest strengths are his intelligence and positioning, which complement his ability on the ball and allow him to pick up the ball in the sort of areas from where he can do the most damage.
Buendía is in space between the lines here, making it quite easy for Cristoph Zimmerman to find him.
An even more stark example here, with Buendía able to get behind the Cardiff midfield line to receive possession, and he then also has the space to drive forward with the ball at his feet.
These are the sort of positions that Villa fans can expect to see Buendía in – note how he also moved out to the left on occasion. Buendía had a lot of freedom in the final third under Farke, and was given free reign to move across the pitch when needed from his right-sided berth. It is likely that he will be a slightly more rigid presence on the right for Villa, but will definitely roam infield to combine with Grealish and the rest of Villa’s attackers.
We have mentioned his intelligence, and this is a great example of his awareness while attacking. Buendía has the option of playing the ball into the box (dark blue arrow) for the attacking Norwich player, and this is probably the option that he is expected to pick. However, he sees Todd Cantwell making a late run into space from deep, and picks him out instead (yellow arrow)…
…from where Cantwell is then able to find the player on the far side in space who has an easy finish into the net.
Here, as the left-back accelerates into the area, Buendía would normally be expected to make the run towards the six-yard box (dark blue arrow). However, he chooses to drop back and head in the direction of the orange arrow instead, anticipating a cut-back.
Those instincts are correct, and with Teemu Pukki’s movement into the six-yard box having pushed the defence deeper, Buendía is able to receive the ball in space…
…before smashing it home with his left foot.
We have mentioned how Buendía is likely to stay in the half-spaces rather than hug the touchline, and this can help open up space for an overlapping right-back, as in the next example.
Buendía is quite central here as Norwich attack, and with the Norwich attackers all staying fairly narrow, this has pulled the Barnsley defence narrow as well.
As a result, Max Aarons has acres of space to bomb forward into, with Buendía making a central run to open up the passing lane out to Aarons as well.
Aarons goes out to the byline before sending in a cross that Buendía nods into the net. His late run into the box once again means that he is in space, with the Barnsley defenders deeper in the area and therefore unable to get close to him.
We have seen how Buendía is excellent at finding space when attacking, and this will be the most important part of his play for Villa when they are in possession.
Long passing and goal threat
Another facet of his game that is likely to be valuable to Aston Villa is his ability to make direct, accurate passes from deeper positions. This will be crucial during transitions, as Buendía can drop deep to pick up possession before making longer passes to find the likes of Grealish and Watkins in space.
This is an example of such a pass, where Buendía is able to find Cantwell running in behind from a deeper position on the right flank.
In terms of his goal threat, Buendía was adept at getting into the box to score, but he was also quite dangerous from outside the area.
This adds another facet to Villa’s attacking play, as Buendía can exploit space in front of opposition defences in this manner.
He is also quite capable of scoring with his left foot after cutting infield from the right.
Potential role in Aston Villa’s setup
How would Buendía then fit into Villa’s setup in possession? I have looked at a potential scenario here where Villa have the ball to show the kind of spaces that could open up as a result of his positioning and movement.
One of the biggest results would be that the Villa right-back would usually have a lot of space to advance into due to Buendía’s central positioning. We have already seen an example of how this opened up space for Max Aarons for Norwich, and Matty Cash can expect to have similar amounts of space, especially as opposition defences will often be forced to stay narrow due to Buendía’s presence. This also means that he will be close to his teammates, and will therefore be able to play quick combinations with them between the lines. Buendía can look to come short to receive possession, run in behind, or make runs into the central space, and this variety of movement will keep the opposition guessing and therefore help open up space for himself as well as his teammates.
Emiliano Buendía was one of the best players in the Championship last season, and while he may have been expected to make a move to a bigger club than Aston Villa, this is a sign of Villa’s ambition to challenge for European spots over the next few seasons as well. The 24-year-old will add a lot of creativity and guile to Villa’s play in possession, and it will also help to take some of the defensive focus away from Jack Grealish, which will in turn potentially create more space for the England international as well. We do expect Grealish to stay at Villa Park this season, so it will be fascinating to see how these two players link up, but if he does depart, Buendía can help to pick up the slack, albeit in a different manner to how Grealish operates.